Research at Onsala Space Observatory

Onsala Space Observatory provides world class observing facilities for the national and international research communities in astronomy and Earth sciences.

As the Swedish national infrastructure for radio astronomy, Onsala Space Observatory provides world class observing facilities for the national and international research communities in astronomy and Earth sciences. The main scientific focus is on the origins and life of stars and galaxies using high resolution observations and spectroscopy, and the application of these and related techniques in space geodesy and aeronomy. The full effort is supported by research and development of technologies, components, instruments and methods for radio astronomy and Earth science observations.

The research with the Onsala facilities is carried out by the observatory staff, and by some of the research groups at the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at Chalmers. But more important is that the facilities and data from them are used by other Swedish and international scientists. Access to the telescopes is granted through a review process, where the scientific merit of applications for observing time is evaluated.

Radio astronomy

Radio astronomical research spans a large area: from comets and stars to galaxies and the large-scale structure of the universe. The goal is to understand the universe and to answer fundamental questions, such as: How were the first galaxies formed and how do they evolve? What happens close to the enormous black holes found in the centre of galaxies, even in our Milky Way? How are stars and planetary systems formed and what happens when stars die? How are new molecules formed in the gas clouds between the stars, molecules that may later be found on planets around other stars? How was our own solar system formed?

With radio telescopes, it is possible to observe objects that are impossible to see with an optical telescope. The centre of our Galaxy, for example, is hidden for optical telescopes by dark dust clouds, but its radio emission can be observed. Stars are formed in large clouds of dust and gas, and in such clouds more than a hundred different kinds of molecules, many of them organic, have been discovered through radio astronomy spectroscopy. Other types of radio waves are emitted from electrons moving with close to the speed of light in the magnetic fields in the neighbourhood of giant black holes.

A few examples of research projects illustrate the research with the National Facility telescopes.


Odin has detected water in 13 comets, one of them (9P/Tempel 1) the target of the NASA Deep Impact spacecraft. When the spacecraft's 370 kg impactor hit the comet at 10 km/s, Odin observed a release of about 5000 tons of water. Wtih APEX, four different molecules were detected in the coma of the long-period comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy): HCN, CH3OH, H2CO and CO.

Star formation

The Onsala 25 m telescope has been used for a survey of methanol maser emission from the Galaxy. New sources were detected, and follow-up observations with SEST indicated that the maser sources are associated with young star formation. VLBI observations of one massive protostar revealed methanol masers in an edge-on accretion disc, showing that massive stars form by accretion of gas rather than by coalescence of smaller stars.

Evolved stars

Emission from molecules in envelopes surrounding stars in late stages of evolution is observed by radio telescopes to determine, e.g., the mass-loss rate from the stars and chemical processes in the envelopes. The mass-loss process enriches the interstellar medium, from which new stars are born, with molecules, heavy elements and grains. Many different molecular species have been observed in evolved (AGB) stars with the Onsala 20 m telescope, SEST, APEX and ALMA. One important molecule is SiO, which shows evidences of non-equilibrium chemistry and adsorption onto grains.

Interstellar clouds

Different types of interstellar clouds are observed with the Onsala 20 m telescope to study, e.g., turbulence in translucent molecular clouds and chemical differentiation in dense cloud cores. An important result from Odin is the first detection ever of interstellar molecular oxygen, O2. The abundance of interstellar molecular oxygen is, however, much lower than expected, indicating that oxygen is "locked up" as water ice on grain surfaces. With APEX, new interstellar molecules has been discovered, for example hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and CF+.


The distribution of molecular gas in the spiral galaxy M 51 has been mapped with the Onsala 20 m telescope, and molecular gas was detected at great distances from its centre. The properties of gas in active and starburst galaxies, observed with the Onsala 20 m telescope and SEST, was found to vary significantly among luminous galaxies in ways that can be related to starburst and AGN evolution. VLBI observations have detected obscuring molecular torii in Seyfert galaxies, and supernovas in Arp 220 indicating star formation and evolution modes in starburst galaxies radically different from standard models. The The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, including APEX and ALMA, has produced the first image ever of the shadow of a black hole, the supermassive black hole in galaxy M87. VLBI has been used to observe gravitationally lensed quasars.

The telescopes mentioned above are, in addition to the 20 m and 25 m telescopes in Onsala, SEST (the Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope in Chile, closed in 2003), APEX (Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment in Chile, inaugurated in 2005), Odin (a satellite for radio astronomy and aeronomy, launched in 2001) and ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array in Chile). The Onsala telescopes are also used for VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry). Another important facility is the European radio telescope LOFAR.

Earth sciences

Earth science research in Onsala make use of VLBI and global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), e.g. GPS, to estimate the Earth's crustal movements, orientation in space, and atmospheric water vapour content. VLBI measurements of plate tectonics started in 1980. One result is that the distance between Onsala and Westford, on the east coast of the USA, increases with 17 mm/year. Gases in Earth's atmosphere are also observerd with radiometers, similar to those used in radio astronomy. A gravimeter continuosly measures changes in Earth's gravity caused by, e.g., tides. GNSS observations of land uplift in Scandinavia (peaking at approximately 10 mm/year) are made without the uncertainties imposed by a changing sea-level reference. The combination of GNSS an​d tide gauge data can be used to infer changes in absolute sea-level, a key parameter in models of earth climate and ocean warming.

The Space Geodesy and Geodynamics unit at the observatory's host department Space, Earth and Environment is ​a frequent user of the observatory's Earth science instruments.

Technical research and development

Onsala Space Observatory is active in developing equipment and methods for radio astronomy and Earth sciences.

The Group for Advanced Receiver Development (GARD), at the observatory's host department Space Earth and Environment, is a research and engineering group working on Terahertz instrumentation. GARD research focuses on superconducting electronics, material science and thin-film processing. The results and experience from the research activities facilitate development and building of state-ofthe-art instruments used in radio astronomy and environmental science. For example, GARD developed, and was involved in the production of, the receivers for ALMA Band 5 (163-211 GHz). These receivers will give ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submilliter Array in Chile, the possibility to observe, e.g., the emission from water molecules at 183 GHz and from C+ ions at large cosmological distances.

GARD is located at Chalmers Campus Johanneberg in Gothenburg.

Onsala Space Observatory is involved in designing equipment for SKA, the Square Kilometre Array.